Water for elephants

A face to face encounter with an elephant is on many travelers’ wish list. These wonderfully bulky animals offer an amazing opportunity to be close to nature and wildlife in far away places like India, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and many other Asian countries.

More often than not, we travel with our two children aged 5 and 8, and like most other children the prospect of riding an elephant is as exotic as it gets. It is something that will keep them going even after fourteen hours on a plane, dodgy meals in even dodgier street stalls and believe it or not – it will even fuel their appetite for more  when their little legs and arms have temporarily taken on a horrid, lumpy texture due to dense mosquito bites.

In parent language this translates to ‘don’t mess with promised elephant rides’. Have you told your child (s)he will be riding an elephant, you’d better make it happen!


We took our kids on an elephant ride on a previous trip to Vietnam. We crossed Lac Lake on elephant back, an experience which left our then three year old daughter fast asleep. We were sat in a sort of rack mounted on the elephant’s back, and the rocking movements were horrific. It didn’t make matters any better that the elephant’s feet kept getting stuck in the muddy bottom of the lake, and he had to pull his legs out of the mud to keep moving forwards. Not nice.

This time around in Luang Prabang in Laos we wanted a different experience. We wanted to be closer to the animal, preferably sitting on the elephant without the wooden rack. We also wanted to experience the animals in their natural habitat without being part of a huge tour group. It felt good to know what we wanted, but making sure we got it wasn’t quite so easy.

Luang Prabang is full of agencies offering elephant rides. We took our time and talked to a good five or six of them to find out what was on offer. Some were so cheap that we immediately suspected that the experience would reflect the low price. Others were so pricey that we simply weren’t prepared to pay up. Two hundred euros for a morning with the elephants seemed too inflated. For that price you’d get your whole family in to Disneyland Paris. (Not that we’d rather do that, but after all, you don’t expect European prices in Laos).

Then, on a bike trip to the Tad Sae Waterfalls outside Luang Prabang we stumbled across an elephant camp. We negotiated our wishes, and ended up with everything we wished for at a very reasonable price:


This was on a par with the prices offered in the agencies we had been to see. Slightly cheaper actually. However, because we were negotiating on location, we had the advantage of knowing we would be the only tourists in the group, and we could also tell them we wanted to be as close to the animals as possible.

Another big advantage we had, due to luck only, was that our mahmuts (elephant trainers) took an immediate liking to our kids. They went out of their way to give them a fun filled adventure which included jumping off the elephant’s heads in the river, climbing back up using the elephant leg as a step and involving themselves in our water fight. They passed our kids from one elephant to the other in order to let both of them have a go as ‘mahmuts’.

Truth is, this $75 experience  turned out to be the highlight of our holiday. We ended our day in the Tad Sae Waterfalls full of adrenalin. The elephants blew our minds, and needless to say – during the rest of the trip the kids wanted to buy every single piece of souvenir that had an elephant on it.

Swimming with the elephants, riding them and touching the corners of their weird anatomy is something that touched our hearts.

Ever wondered what the life of a monk is like? During our stay in Luang Prabang, Spencer spent hours upon hours getting to know the monks and photograph their unique way of life. Check out some of the photos.

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5 comments on “Water for elephants

  1. Dear Spencer and Vibeke., great post and experience.! We will be in luang prabang next week with our children aged 3 and 7. We arelooking exactly for such experience with elephants! So my question: how to find the right elefant camp? Any indications or hints? Thank you in advance, Chiara and Daniele

    • Hi Chiara and Daniele,

      Sorry I never answered your question. I hope you found what you were looking for, and that your kids enjoyed the experience just as much as ours did!

      As you’ll know by now, Luang Prabang is full of elephant camp organizers, and any of the tour agencies in the old town will help you organize your tour. We didn’t fancy spending the day with lots of other tourists though, so ended up finding ‘our own’ elephant camp near the Tad Sae waterfalls, approx 50 kilometers outside Luang Prabang.
      We made the mistake of thinking we could go there by bicycle, since many locals told us it was only twenty minutes out of town. To cut a long story short, we ended up hitch hiking with two bikes, two kids and two pairs of very tired legs…

      The elephant camp was just at the entrance to the waterfalls, and cost 50 dollars for all of us.

      Vibeke

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